Farming might appear to be an idyllic way of life. "Green Acres is the place to be," right?
People whose livelihood is on the farm know that has never been the case. It's hard work and long hours in an occupation that's dependent on the vagaries of weather, the whims of the marketplace and a thousand things that that can go wrong.
And experts say the mental health stresses of the agricultural life may be as bad now as they've ever been.
"People are designed to be resilient, to handle some level of stress," said Emily Wilmes, who directs the Rural Stress Task Force for University of Minnesota Extension. "But when you look at the number of factors that farmers are looking at, it gets to be too much for them to handle."
Jeff Bender cites three factors that have added to the stress facing farmers in just the past few years.
First, there's economic stress caused by the effect trade embargoes have had on commodity prices, said Bender, who is co-director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.
Second, there's a labor shortage, and it's worse because of immigration barriers for those who are dependent on immigrant and migrant workers, he said.
Finally, the weather has been awful for farming, Bender said, particularly this season.
Wilmes, 29, who grew up on a dairy farm in Le Sueur County, affirmed that.
"These weather patterns have just come in at bad times and not lined up," she said. "We had a lot of crops that we couldn't even get planted because it was just too wet. And now we're struggling to get crops out of the ground because it's just too wet."
Evidence of stress in farm country, she said, comes from a survey taken by UMASH's Cultivating Resiliency for Women in Agriculture project, in which nearly 90% of farmers and agribusiness professionals reported agriculture-related stress. Among some of the worries the mostly female respondents named: financial (91%), commodity prices (87%) and weather (76%).
Wilmes, who also serves as Extension educator in Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties, was appointed to direct the newly created Rural Stress Task Force in April of this year. She comes to her concern for the mental health of farmers through firsthand experience.
In April 2018, her father had to sell his cattle "because it just financially wasn't working anymore," Wilmes said. Earlier, her brother — who operates the farm with their dad — lost his arm in a farming accident. Then on Sept. 12, 2018, a dairy farmer she knows called her with news that another farmer had taken his own life.
"And it was the father of a college friend," Wilmes said. "And in my conversation with this gentleman, he said to me, 'Emily, what can you do? What can Extension do?' And so I just took that very personally."
She already had been talking about mental health issues in her role as Extension educator, Wilmes said. She's a believer in addressing such issues, but added, "That can be a tough subject for farmers to talk about."
Northland farmers are not immune from the challenges that face their compatriots in more heavily agricultural parts of the state. The News Tribune talked to three area farmers who were willing to share their stories. Here’s what they had to say:
The landless farmer
Heather-Marie Bloom, 44, is a first-generation organic vegetable farmer. A farmer since 2011, without property of her own, she currently is leasing farmland between the towns of Floodwood and Cromwell.
Not owning her own land is one source of stress for Bloom.
“It’s just so difficult not owning your own land,” Bloom said. “And yes, owning your own land comes with a lot of stressors. It’s not like that’s the easy answer. But having that stability would ease the major stressor.”
Another source of stress is wetter weather than in the past, which Bloom attributes to climate change.
“It’s going to be new territory for some of us up here,” she said. “Our springs are really, really wet. It kind of stays wet for a while, then we go through a little bit of drought. And then your guess is as good as anybody’s when we get that first frost.”
Bloom is clear: Farming makes her happy. “(But) the mounting list of stressors is also incredibly high as well, and it’s challenging.”
She described the constant worrying about what she calls “her babies” — the crops. “You’re constantly worried about the weather, the bugs, the soil, the mammals that could get in and wipe it out. And most farmers have to have off-farm jobs as well. … This summer, I just worked one (compared with two in the past).”
Bloom doesn’t want to quit farming, but people who know her think she should, she said.
“Some people are just incredulous that I’ve continued going, because it’s been so difficult,” she said. “And I guess my reply is, ‘Well, I’m stubborn. But I love it that much. And it’s because it isn’t just a job. .... I want to live out in the country. I want to live with the solitude. I want to be closer to the critters, and I want to be able to watch the seasons change rather than be annoyed by the seasons changing. … And for now, I’m going to stick with it.”
The price roller-coaster
Peter Laveau, a second-generation dairy farmer who lives and farms near Wrenshall, said he has benefited recently from an increase in price controls for dairy. But prices have been on a four-year roller coaster during which the farm has made little, if any, money, Laveau said.
Laveau, 51, also said it hasn’t been a good weather year.
“We definitely don’t need moisture in the fall when we go to harvest,” he said. “Then you go out to harvest and fight the mud. The spring was cold and slow."
Laveau, who started taking over the farm in 1991 when his father died, said the mental health strains seem the same to him as they’ve always been.
“If you’re a dairy farmer, you’re probably pretty much used to it,” he said. “That’s the way the milk price is. It’s a roller coaster, and you go through the bad times. … The thing is, the bad times are probably worse than the good times (are good).”
But Laveau, who also serves as the Wrenshall fire chief, admits to uncertainty about his future in farming.
“I question myself sometimes,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I’ve got a daughter that if it wasn’t for her, I don’t know how I’d make it, because she pretty much works on the farm full time, plus she’s got a full-time job. I don’t want to see her do that the rest of her life.”
‘I’m no longer immortal’
Chris Litchke, 58, a first-generation beef farmer who farms and lives south of Superior, also cited climate change and wet weather as an increasing source of stress.
“This has been a five-year thing of being too wet around here,” said Litchke, who has 475 bovine animals and 1,500 acres of land. “We’re not getting the crops off the fields because of the wetness.”
Financial stress also takes a toll. Costs of production keep going up, he said, and the price of commodities has been going down.
The volume of work has become so consuming that Litchke has had to give up activities such as helping coach hockey and helping lead 4-H, he said. He seldom is able to get to church anymore, he added.
Although Litchke said he and his family are in good mental health, he said he understands how the stress factors mount.
“You have to work harder,” he said. “Your family members have to put in more time. And what happens is fatigue. The fatigue factor completely takes over.”
Recent back issues have caused Litchke to consider whether he should at least downsize his farm, he said. The problem is, he needs the acreage he has and the amount of land he has to be competitive.
As he grows older, he’s reflecting on the challenges, Litchke said.
“I realized I’m no longer immortal,” he said. “I realized I can no longer go with four or five hours of sleep every day. So that scares me.”
His family benefits, Litchke said, because they butcher and market their own meat. He thinks more farmers should look into direct-to-consumer sales of their products.
Several resources are available for farmers trying to better cope with stress and mental health challenges:
- For the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center: umash.umn.edu/stress
- For the Rural Health Task Force: extension.umn.edu/rural-stress
- From the Minnesota Department of Agriculture: minnesotafarmstress.com
The Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline is free and confidential and available 24-7. Call 833-600-2670.